Ray Allen is probably the greatest shooter who ever tossed a ball into a hoop. He’s a ten-time NBA All-Star, the all-time league leader in three-pointers. His immaculate stroke was immortalized on screen when he played Jesus Shuttlesworth, the young phenom in the 1998 Spike Lee film He Got Game. But Allen isn’t a young phenom anymore. He’s a 38-year-old sub for the Miami Heat. He averaged nine points a game this season off the bench, seventeen below his career high.
Allen doesn’t complain about that. He came to Miami to win championships, and last year, thanks to his unforgettable back-up corner three in Game Six against the San Antonio Spurs, the Heat won the championship. It looked like a fluke, but Allen later explained that he had drained that very shot in practice hundreds of thousands of times. His obsessive and exhaustive daily shooting routine never changes, which is why he’s known as Every Day Ray. He has a job to do, and he does it. In Game 3 of this year’s conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, he hit four killer threes in the fourth quarter to lead the Heat to a come-from-behind victory.
“I don’t want to call him a role player, because he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday,” the announcer Mike Breen marveled that night. “But…”
It’s OK to admit it: Ray Allen is now a role player. In fact, on the Heat, the team America loves to hate, every player is a role player.
Shane Battier, recently named the league’s Teammate of the Year, draws offensive charges, dives for loose balls, and does the other little things that once inspired Moneyball writer Michael Lewis to profile him as the “No-Stats All-Star.” Udonis Haslem, who turned down offers twice as lucrative to stay with the Heat in 2010, is the team enforcer, responsible for informing opponents of the consequences of unsportsmanlike behavior. Chris “Birdman” Anderson, the sci-fi-looking dude with the psychedelic tattoos, is the energy guy who comes off the bench to crash the boards and block shots and get the crowd as crazy as he is.
Even the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have roles to play. Granted, LeBron’s role involves being the best basketball player on the planet, but he has to do it within Coach Eric Spoelstra’s system, which means he has to set picks and rotate on defense and pass the ball to Every Day Ray whenever he’s open. LeBron embraces that system, as do all of his teammates, which is what makes the Heat so awesome.
OK, I’m biased. I’m an obnoxious Heat fan. I believe the greatness of LeBron, even after four MVP awards, is actually underappreciated, and I’ve speculated irresponsibly about the reasons. But the prevailing narrative about the Heat-Spurs Finals rematch that begins Thursday night—Miami’s freakishly athletic superstar against San Antonio’s admirably unselfish team, the Big Three against San Antonio’s depth and drive—is just wrong. Miami plays the right way, too. The city might be a bit shallow and narcissistic, but the team is the opposite. The defining quality of its amazing run—four straight Finals, hopefully three straight titles—has been sacrifice.
The chatter about the Big Three’s arrival in Miami in 2010 focused on LeBron’s cringe-inducing “take-my-talents-to-South-Beach” announcement and the over-the-top “not-one-not-two-not-three” celebration. But the Big Three began their era with sacrifice, leaving millions of dollars on the table to leave the team with a bit of salary cap space. They’ve also sacrificed on the floor. Wade, a superstar in his own right who had been a Finals MVP, had to defer to LeBron and learn to play without the ball in his hands. Bosh, a perennial All-Star who had always been an alpha dog, had to reinvent himself as a jump-shooting third option. Even LeBron had to tone down his ball-dominance, to get Wade and Bosh the touches they need—and then had to endure the sports yakkers who believed his unselfishness in crunch time reflected a fear of the big moment.
The Heat’s supporting cast is a collection of former stars and veteran specialists who could all make more and play more elsewhere. They don’t whine about minutes; Coach Spo’s mantra is “stay ready,” and they do. James Jones played in just 20 of the Heat’s 82 regular-season games, but his teammates say he could fall out of bed shooting; he was the hero of the Heat’s first playoff game with 12 points in 14 minutes. Rashard Lewis, a former All-Star who was once the second-highest-paid player in the league, sat out the first two games of the Indiana series; he started the next four. Michael Beasley, the second pick in the 2008 draft behind Derrick Rose, and Greg Oden, the first pick in the 2007 draft ahead of Kevin Durant, are now seldom-used Heat reserves. But they’ve accepted that, and they both know their moment could come, if Spoelstra decides he needs Beasley’s scoring or Oden’s size.
There’s a widespread perception that none of this matters, that the Heat’s destiny was obvious when the Big Three arrived. But the Los Angeles Lakers put together a Big Four of future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, and promptly got swept in the first round. This year the New Jersey Nets assembled a Big Five of perennial (though aging) All-Stars, and the Heat wiped them out in the second round. If those teams had gelled and dominated, everyone would have said they were so stacked it was inevitable, but obviously it wasn’t. Chemistry matters. Egos get in the way.
It’s been up to Spoelstra, who started with the Heat as a lowly video coordinator, to manage the egos. There’s been a lot of totally justified talk about the genius of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but Coach Spo has worked magic as well. He speaks in corporate mumbo-jumbo about “respecting the process” and “understanding the journey,” and he’s almost comically even-keeled on the sidelines. But it works. He puts his players in positions where they can succeed; the Big Three were all the league’s most efficient players at their positions this season. You’ll rarely see the Heat taking bad shots. Everyone has a role, and no one—except brain-fart-prone point guard Mario Chalmers, whose role is apparently to give me heartburn—ventures outside the confines of the system.
It’s fun to watch. And it’s kind of inspiring. Not to get too philosophical about men in shorts playing games, but we’re all role players on this earth.
Which is a long-winded way of saying: Heat in six.